Rune Poems - Historical Lore

The Big Book of Runes and Rune Magic: How to Interpret Runes, Rune Lore, and the Art of Runecasting - Edred Thorsson 2018

Rune Poems
Historical Lore

Besides the primary lore of the rune names, shapes, order, and aett divisions, the oldest systematic lore attached to the staves is embodied in the rune poems. There originally were perhaps several of these poems in the tradition, but there can be little doubt that they all belonged to the same sacred body of lore. In this chapter we will present the three major rune poems, along with a little-studied piece of apparent doggerel that may teach us something. All of the poems are translated with a minimum of commentary or internal interpretation. In addition to the rune poems proper—which are essentially series of explanatory poetic stanzas, each beginning with the rune name/stave of a rune row—there are a number of stanzas in the Poetic Edda directly relevant to runelore, and we will provide some esoteric commentary on the significance of these sections of the Edda. The original purpose of these works may have been to help the runemasters hold certain key concepts in mind while performing runecastings, or they may have just been traditional formulations of the general lore of the runes. In any event, we will later make use of this poetic material when interpreting runecastings in part three of this book.

The texts of the rune poems in their original languages and a full glossary of the words used can be found in The Rune Poems (Lodestar, 2018).

The Old English Rune Poem

“The Old English Rune Poem” records stanzas for the twenty-nine-stave Old English Futhorc. This is especially valuable because it is a source for the lore of the staves of the Elder Futhark not present in the younger row. The drawback is that some of its stanzas seem to have been altered for a Christian audience. But it is wise to remember that the “Christianity” of the English court society of the early Middle Ages was hardly an orthodox one, and it certainly preserved much of the old heathen culture.

For the text of this poem we are dependent on a transcription made by Humfrey Wanley that was subsequently printed in the Thesaurus of George Hickes in 1705. The manuscript of the poem was destroyed in the fire that ravaged the Cottonian library in 1731. Although the manuscript from which the transcription was taken dated from around the end of the tenth century, it is probable that the original version of the poem dates from as early as the late eighth or early ninth century:

Image [Money] is a comfort

to everybody

yet every man ought

to deal it out freely

if he wants to get a good judgment

from the lord.

Image [Aurochs] is fearless

and greatly horned

a very fierce beast,

—he fights with his horns —

a famous roamer of the moor

he is a courageous wight.

Image [Thorn] is very sharp;

for every thegn

who grasps it; it is harmful,

and exceedingly cruel

to every man

who lies among them.

Image [God/Mouth] is the originator

of all speech,

the mainstay of wisdom

and a comfort to the wise ones,

for every noble warrior

hope and happiness.

Image [Riding] is easy for every warrior

while he is in the hall

but very hard

for the one who sits up

on a powerful horse

over miles of road.

Image [Torch] is to every living person

known by its fire,

it is clear and bright;

it usually burns

when the athelings

rest inside the hall.

Image [Gift] is for every man

an ornament and praise,

help and worthiness;

and to every homeless adventurer

it is a benefit and substance

for those who have nothing else.

Image [Joy] is experienced

by the one who knows few troubles

pains and sorrows,

and to him who himself has

power and blessedness,

and a good enough house.

Image [Hail] is the whitest of grains,

it comes from high in heaven

gusts of wind hurl it,

then it turns to water.

Image [Need] is constricting on the chest

although to the children of men it often becomes

a help and healing nevertheless,

if they heed it in time.

Image [Ice] is very cold

and exceedingly slippery;

it glistens, clear as glass,

very much like gems,

a floor made of frost

is fair to see.

Image [Year/Harvest] is the hope of men,

when god, holy king of heaven,

causes the earth to give forth

her bright fruits

to the noble and needy alike.

Image [Yew] is on the outside

a rough tree

and hard, firm in the earth,

keeper of the fire,

supported by roots,

joyously on the estate.

Image [Lot box] is always

play and laughter

among bold men, in the middle

where the warriors sit

in the beer hall,

happily together.

Image [Elk's] sedge has its home

most often in the fen,

it waxes in the water

and grimly wounds

and reddens [“burns”] with blood

any warrior

who, in any way,

tries to grasp it.

Image [Sun] is by seamen

always hoped for

when they fare far away

over the fishes' bath

until they bring the brine-stallion

to land.

Image [Tir] is a sign,

it keeps faith well

with athelings,

always on its course

over the clouds of night

it never fails.

Image [Birch] is without fruit

but just the same it bears

limbs without fertile seed;

it has beautiful branches,

high on its crown

it is finely covered,

loaded with leaves,

touching the sky.

Image [Horse] is, in front of the earls

the joy of athelings,

a charger proud on its hooves;

when concerning it, heroes—

men wealthy in war-horses—

exchange speech,

and it is always a benefit

to restless men.

Image [Man] is in his mirth

dear to his kinsman;

although each shall

depart from the other;

for by his decree the lord

wants to commit,

that poor flesh

to the earth.

Image [Water] is to people

seemingly unending

if they should venture out

on an unsteady ship

and the sea waves

frighten them very much,

and the brine-stallion

does not heed its bridle.

Image [Ing] was first

seen by men

among the East-Danes,

until he again went eastward [or “back”]

over the wave;

the wain followed on;

this is what the warriors

named the hero.

Image [Day] is the lord's messenger,

dear to men,

the ruler's famous light;

mirth and hope

to rich and poor,

of benefit to all.

Image [Estate] is very dear

to every man,

if he can enjoy what is right

and according to custom

in his dwelling,

most often in prosperity.

Image [Oak] is on the earth

for the children of men

the nourishment of meat;

it often fares

over the gannet's bath [ = sea]:

The sea finds out

whether the oak keeps

noble troth.

Image [Ash] is very tall,

[and] dear to men,

firm on its base;

it holds its place rightly

although it is attacked

by many men.

Image [Yew bow] is for athelings

and warriors alike

a joy and sign of worth,

it is excellent on a horse,

steadfast on an expedition—

[it is] a piece of war-gear.

Image [Serpent] is a river fish

although it always takes

its food on land,

it has a fair abode

surrounded by water,

where it lives in joy.

Image [Grave] is loathsome

to every warrior

when steadily

the flesh—the corpse—

begins to grow cold

to choose the earth

palely as a bedmate;

fruits fall

joys pass away,

pledges are broken.

The Old Norwegian Rune Rhyme

“The Old Norwegian Rune Rhyme” dates from between the end of the twelfth century and the beginning of the thirteenth. It is clearly part of the same tradition as “The Icelandic Rune Poem,” although it is contaminated by some Christian elements. The structure of each stanza is compact and actually twofold: a half-line with two alliterating staves, followed by a half-line containing a single alliterative stave. In the original the two half-lines rhyme. The ideological content of the two half-lines is seemingly unrelated; however, the second is actually an esoteric comment on an aspect of the first, which is emphasized in the whole. These stanzas, in an illuminative sense, work much like Zen koans:

Image [Money] causes strife among kinsmen;

the wolf grows up in the woods.

Image [Slag] is from bad iron;

oft runs the reindeer on the hard snow.

Image [Thurs] causes the sickness of women;

few are cheerful from misfortune.

Image [Estuary] is the way of most journeys;

but the sheath is [that for] swords.

Image [Riding], it is said, is the worst for horses;

Reginn forged the best sword.

Image [Sore] is the curse of children;

grief makes a man pale.

Image [Hail] is the coldest of grains;

Christ* shaped the world in ancient times.

Image [Ice], we call the broad bridge;

the blind need to be led.

Image [Good harvest] is the profit of men;

I say that Fródhi was generous.

Image [Sun] is the light of the lands;

I bow to the decree of holiness.

Image [Tyr] is the one-handed among the Aesir;

the smith has to blow often.

Image [Birch twig] is the limb greenest with leaves;

Loki brought the luck of deceit.

Image [Man] is the increase of earth;

mighty is the talon-span of the hawk.

Image [Water] is, when it falls from the mountain, a waterfall;

but gold [objects] are costly things.

Image [Yew] is the greenest wood in the winter;

there is usually, when it burns, singeing [i.e., it makes a hot fire].

The Old Icelandic Rune Poem

“The Old Icelandic Rune Poem” dates from as late as the fifteenth century but preserves lore from a much older time, as do all the rune poems. The rhyme gives a complex body of information about each alliterating half-line, followed by an independent internally alliterating single half-line, all of which is followed by two words: 1) a Latin “translation” of the rune name, which is often an esoteric commentary, and 2) an alliterating Old Norse word for “chieftain,” which also acts as a further key to deeper meaning. Here the Old Norse word is “etymologically” translated into English:

Image [Money] is the [cause of] strife among kinsmen,

and the fire of the flood-tide,

and the path of the serpent.

gold  “leader of the war-band”

Image [Drizzle] is the weeping of clouds,

and the diminisher of the rim of ice,

and [an object for] the herdsman's hate.

shadow [should read imber, shower?] “leader”

Image [Thurs] is the torment of women,

and the dweller in the rocks,

and the husband of Vardh-rúna [a giantess?]

Saturn  “ruler of the thing”

Image [Ase = Odin] is the olden-father,

and Asgardhr's chieftain,

and the leader of Valhöll.

Jupiter  “point-leader

Image [Riding] is bliss to the one who sits,

and a swift journey,

and the toil of the horse.

journey  “worthy man”

Image [Sore] is the bale of children,

and an attack of battle,

and the house of rotten flesh.

whip  “king” = descendant of good kin

Image [Hail] is a cold grain,

and a mighty snowfall,

and the sickness [destroyer] of snakes.

hail  “battle-leader”

Image [Need] is the struggle of the bondmaid,

and an oppressive condition,

and toilsome work.

trouble  ON níflunger, “descendant of the dead?”

Image [Ice] is the river's bark,

and the wave's roof,

and a danger for fey men.

ice  “one who wears the boar-helm”

Image [Good harvest] is the profit of all men,

and a good summer,

and a fully ripened field.

year  “all-ruler”

Image [Sun] is the shield of the clouds,

and a shining glory,

and the life-long sorrow [ = destroyer] of ice.

wheel  “descendant of the victorious one”

Image [Tyr] is the one-handed god,

and the wolf's leftovers,

and the ruler of the temple.

Mars  “director”

Image [Birch twig] is a leafy limb,

and a little tree,

and a youthful wood.

silver fir  “protector”

Image [Man] is the joy of man,

and the increase of earth,

and the adorner of ships.

human  “generous one”

Image [Liquid] is churning water,

and a wide kettle,

and fishes' field.

lake  “praise-worthy one”

Image [Yew] is a bent bow,

and brittle iron,

and Farbauti [ = a giant] of the arrow

bow, rainbow  “descendant of Yngvi”

The Abecedarium Nordmanicum

Because the Abecedarium Nordmanicum is such a curious piece and is usually not treated in texts on rune poems, we will give it some special attention here. The poem is found in a St. Gall (Switzerland) manuscript, the oldest manuscript of any rune poem, dating from the early 800s. However, its contents do not seem to belong to an ancient heathen tradition. It is written in a mixture of High and Low German, with some Norse characteristics. The manuscript probably was put together by Walafrid Strabo, who studied under Hrabanus Maurus in Fulda from 827 to 829. Hrabanus, who was in turn the student of the Saxon Alcuin, was the greatest single collector of runelore in the Middle Ages. Although all three men were Christian clerics, and their rationale for collecting this material might have been intelligence gathering for missionary work among Asatru Norsemen, they inadvertently gathered a great deal of genuine lore of Germanic troth.

Image fee first.

Image aurochs after.

Image thurs the third stave.

Image the Ase is above him.

Image wheel is written last.

Image then cleaves cancre:

Image hail has Image need

Image ice. Image year. Image and sun.

Image Tiu. Image birch Image and man in the middle

Image water the bright.

Image yew holds all.

This “poem” represents the younger Norse runes, but it was composed in the social context of those with knowledge of the Old English Futhorc and its traditions. This is clear from the Old English glosses made in the manuscript (not shown). For the most part, and at first glance, it seems that the words of this poem merely serve to knit the rune names together in proper order (as a mnemonic). But in at least four instances the phrases are esoterically meaningful: (1) “the Ase is above him” ( = the thurs)—apparently a theological comment; (2) “and man [is] in the middle”—clearly is not a spatial but cosmo-psychological statement—man is in Midhgardhr; (3) “water [is] the bright one”—this is the shining water of life (see reference to gold in the “Old Norwegian Rune Rhyme”); and (4) “the yew holds everything”—the World-Yew contains the essence of the multiverse.

Comments on Runic Stanzas from the Poetic Edda

Besides the rune poems above, there are three lays of the Poetic Edda directly relevant to the runic tradition. These are, however, different from the futhark poems. The Eddic poems may delineate, in order, a series of galdrar clearly attached to runes, but the exact runic formula may remain hidden. Each stanza is not necessarily attached to a single runestave, although it is usually illuminating to classify the meanings in futhark order. Some of these stanzas are clearly meant to be teaching tools. The three lays of the Poetic Edda in question are the “Rúnatals tháttr Ódins” ( = “Hávamál” 138—165), the “Sigrdrífumál,” and the “Grógaldr” ( = first half of the “Svipdagsmál”).

“The Rúnatals Tháttr Ódhins”

The “Rúnatals tháttr” is a key document in the Odian tradition. It should be read and studied in detail by all runers. The lay is essentially made up of three parts: (l) the rune-winning initiation (138—141), (2) the teaching of technical runelore (142—145), and (3) a catalog of eighteen rune-magic songs (146—164). In the first part Odin is initiated (or initiates himself) into the wisdom of the runes by hanging himself in the branches of the World-Tree, Yggdrasill (“the steed of Yggr” [ = Odin], or “the yew column”) with its nine worlds, where he is “wounded by the spear.” This is a typical shamanistic initiatory theme in which the initiate is subjected to some sort of torture or mock execution (in a cosmologically significant context) in order that he might come face-to-face with death. To hang the victim in a tree and stab him with spears in the traditional way of making human sacrifice to Odin, known from early Roman reports to Viking Age saga accounts. Here Odin gives (sacrifices) his Self to himself—“given to Odin, myself to myself.” These words contain the great Odinic rune of gebo, the true nature of Odian Self-sacrifice. The Odian does not give his Self to Odin, but rather he learns the Odian path and gives his Self to himself.

In this process Odin descends into the realm of Hel (Death); and in that twilight between life and death, in the vortex of intensified opposites (:Image:), he receives the flash of runic initiation, in which the runes are shown to him, and he becomes whole with the essence of the universal mysteries. From this realm he returns to the world of consciousness—the worlds of gods and men—in order to communicate these mysteries to the essences of these realms and to certain beings within them. That the substance of these runes is also contained in the poetic mead is emphasized in stanza 140.

This initiatory myth actually describes not a historical “event” but a timeless process in which “inspired consciousness” (wōdh-an-az) melds with the “universal mysteries”—not to be controlled by them but to gain mastery over their use. Its technical aspects give a ritual pattern (one among many) for human workings.

In stanza 141 Odin declares the effect of this on consciousness; it causes it to become—to evolve, grow, and thrive. The last two lines show the complex, transformationally linguistic nature of Odin's work within himself and among the gods and men. In the “moment” of runic initiation he “takes up the runes screaming”—that is, the melding with the universal mysteries is accompanied by a vibratory emanation, the vocalized sound. Hence, the primal link of “mystery” and “sound.” In this vortex natural language fails to express the essential totality of the experience, but it is from this vortex that magical scaldcraft is born.

The second part of the “Rúnatals tháttr” contains essential technical runelore, in albeit cryptic form. Stanza 142 instructs us first to “find” and “read” the mysteries, that is, master passive knowledge of them. Learn to understand and interpret the great and mighty staves. Then we are to use them actively: to color, fashion, and carve, to do active workings with them. The next stanza, which has already been discussed in detail (page 69), is a list of technical terms, each a skill to be mastered by the would-be runer. This section is concluded with the injunction not to “oversacrifice”—best results are derived from correct proportion. The last two lines frame the whole:

Thus did Thundr [ = Odin] carve

before the doom of man;

there he rose up,

when he came back.

This makes the primordial, non-historical nature of the text clear, and tells us that his “falling back” from the World-Tree was truly a rising up. The symbolism of this formula alludes to the Odinic transformational path, which is an oscillation between extremes, and to the idea that the World-Tree has not only branches but roots through which Odin wends his way.

Individual runestaves can be ascribed to each of the stanzas. This illuminates their essence. The rune row in question would be the Younger Futhark of sixteen staves, to which would be added (for esoteric reasons) the old E-rune and G-rune. The magical aim of each verse is usually self-evident: (1) help in removing distress and conflict of all kinds (through “wealth” :Image: (2) removal of disease, healing (through “vital force” :Image:); dulling of enemies' weapons (through “destructive force” :Image:); (4) removal of bonds and fetters (through “ecstatic magical force” :Image:); (5) deflection of enemy weapons through direct magical gaze (by the magical directing :Image:); (6) reflection of a magical curse to its source (through redirection of energy :Image:); (7) control of wild combustion (fire) (through cold ordering force :Image:); (8) removal of conflict (through willed reversal of the effect of stress factors :Image:); (9) calming of wild seas (through constricting force :Image:); (10) confusion of destructive agents (through overloading of magical stream in willed direction :Image:); (11) protection of warriors (through loading with the shield of “good speed [ = luck]” :Image:); (12) learning of the secrets of the dead (through carving of helrúnar—raising the dead along the axis mundi: Image:); (13) protection of a warrior at birth (by an endowment of invulnerability through magical enclosure :Image:); (14) illustrative wisdom magic for knowledge of gods and other worlds (through calling up of the divine and cosmic heritage in man :Image:); (15) sending of power to the other worlds (through increase in vital power :Image:); (16) erotic love magic of attraction (through filling with powers of lust toward blending with the opposite :Image:); (17) erotic love magic of binding (through the force of combination of paired opposites :Image:); (18) dynamically erotic magic of exchange (through sex magical initiation :Image:).

It is to be noted that the eighteen magical songs seem to be divided into two groups of nine, with the first nine being songs of magical drawing away of energy and the latter nine being songs of magical increase of energy. Thus, is it always in the magical ebb and flow of the bipolar Odinic worldview.


As a runic document, the “Sigrdrífumál” is the most complex in Old Norse literature. It is made up of many sections, each a whole but perhaps artificially linked together. There are three sections in the lay in which Sigrdrífa/Brynhildr, the valkyrja and “higher self' of Sigurdhr, gives systematic rune-rede to the hero. The first is in stanzas 6 to 14. Here she catalogs various runic genres: stanza 7—sigrúnar, victory runes, by which one gains victory; stanzas 8 and 9—ölrúnar, ale runes, by which one gains protection through higher consciousness and power; stanza 10—bjargrúnar, help-in-birth runes, by which one brings things forth into being; stanza 11—brimrúnar, sea runes, by which one calms natural disturbances; stanza 12—limrúnar, limb runes, by which one heals sickness; stanza 13—malrúnar, speech runes, by which one gains eloquence; and stanza 14—hugrúnar, mind runes, by which one gains intelligence.

In the second rune-rede section (sts. 17—19) Sigrdrífa indicates twenty-four things on which Odin “carves runes.” The mythological nature of these objects (and the number of them!) shows this to be a working of cosmic shaping through the mysteries of idea—form—vibration on the part of the primal world consciousness—Wōdh--an-az. The three stanzas are actually attributed to the Mímir aspect, which communicates primal wisdom (see chapter 13.) The first lesson to be learned from these three stanzas is that twenty-four is the cosmological “key number” of wholeness, and that this whole system is consciously “vivified” by the will of Odin expressed through the runes.

The third section (stanzas 24—39) consists of a list similar to what we met in the “Hávamál” and will find again in the “Grógaldr.” But this one is more didactic in the style of the earlier stanzas of the “Hávamál” and less “magical.” The number of concepts systematically categorized is eleven (the number of sól in the younger row—ethical force).

As a whole, the three runic sections of the “Sigrdrífumál” have the function of imparting to the hero operative magical, cosmological, and ethical wisdom. These are depicted as having their source in the “higher” fylgja-valkyrja self.


The “Spell of Gróa” is a poem of a type similar to the “Völuspá” in that a dead seeress is summoned from her slumber in Hel to give needful wisdom. The seeress Gróa (from Welsh groach [witch]) sings nine magical songs to her son, Svipdagr, who called upon her to give him magical aid in his quest for the etin-wife Menglodh. The magical intent of the nine songs are as follows: (1) to steady one's true will (:Image:); (2) to protect one from malicious spells (:Image:); (3) to provide safe passage through dangerous water, and maintenance of consciousness in the dark realms (:Image:); (4) to give control over enemies' actions (:Image); (5) to liberate from bonds (:Image); (6) to still stormy seas (:Image:); (7) to provide the life-heat of fire (:Image:); (8) protection from malicious undead (:Image:); (9) to make conscious link with the creative realm of eloquence (:Image:).

Two things should be noted when reading the catalog stanzas of the “Rúnatals tháttr,” “Sigrdrífumál,” and “Grógaldr”: (1) they do not necessarily follow in the futhark order, and (2) it seems that the magical songs themselves are often not overtly recorded (but rather what we find are descriptions of their purposes and effects). The keys to these encoded forms are given in Rune-Gild work.